Review: Louisville Orchestra with Guest Soloist Julian Schwarz

schwarz

For those weary of the cold and ice, the Brown Theater was a respite for shovel-worn backs on Saturday evening. Jorge Mester, very aware of the light crowd, was grateful for the “intrepid” audience and musicians in attendance. Perhaps as intrepid was his choice, and command, of three contrasting works: William Schuman’s New England Triptych, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 and Edward Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme “Enigma.”

Aaron Copland is largely credited for creating the “American” sound, much to the exclusion of his contemporaries like Roy Harris, Virgil Thomson and William Schuman. Saturday’s performance was a reminder of Schuman’s qualities as a craftsman and an artist, and that his New England Triptych is as perfectly American as Copland’s ballet scores or the ubiquitous Fanfare for the Common Man. Mester, who recorded some of Schuman’s music during the First Edition days of the orchestra, was at home in this score.

Schuman pays homage one to one of the earliest American composers in his New England Triptych, based on hymns of the revolutionary era composer (and tanner) William Billings. The jaunty first movement was finely articulate, bouncing through Schuman’s abrupt rhythmic shifts. The second movement felt ragged and out of sync, but was redeemed by a blistering third movement that earned a few hearty yelps from the crowd. It’s rare for the timpani to take the first bow after the maestro, but Jim Rago earned it with his sharp and commanding playing. His appreciation for the applause was gracious and nonchalant.

Guest soloist Julian Schwarz believes in an introspective approach to Shostakovich’s first cello concerto. It’s a work that can easily be raucous — Schwarz opted for the melancholic. This is still a work of immense power, and Schwarz’s playing was equally so, but Saturday’s performance was less about the soloist and more about the music. This inward approach worked, mostly. Its only weakness was felt in the first movement through an overly square tempo.

Principal horn Jon Gustely, the only brass instrument in the concerto, gets what amounts to a sub-concerto. Shostakovich was generous, giving the horn melodic lines similar the solo cello and, in some cases, just as prominent. Gustely’s color was warm and complementary to Schwarz, particularly in the gut-wrenching slow movement. The cadenza that follows, a usual break in the orchestral action that gives the soloist (through dazzling virtuosity) some alone time with the audience, is really a five-minute soliloquy. Schwarz once again showed us his understanding of the music with confidence and took a sensitive, patient pace. The final movement was captivating, and while not technically flawless, showed more of Schwarz’s musicality. His on-stage demeanor was especially warm and humble, and further proven when he joined his fellow cellists for Elgar’s Enigma Variations after intermission. It’s extremely rare for a guest soloist to play with the hosting orchestra after they’ve played a concerto (he must have been exhausted).

Edward Elgar purposely encoded a secret in his Variations on an Original Theme “Enigma,” that still have us chasing for meaning and explanation. Thankfully, the music stands on its own, and ultimately provides a touching portrait of Elgar’s personal life through musical portrayals of his friends. The orchestra shifted nimbly between each character study, capturing the playfulness, tenderness or energy of Elgar’s loved ones. Fast string passages in the second variation were problematic and sloppy. Long, lingering phrases were always inviting, with especially lovely solo moments from principals Jack Griffin (viola), Nicholas Finch (cello) and Andrea Levine (clarinet), in order of appearance.

Nimrod, the ninth and most well-known variation, is expected to be the crowning achievement. It builds from a very soft, string chorale to a full orchestra statement of the same, and the Louisville Orchestra brass unleashed every ounce of sound, carrying the orchestra upward as Nimrod reached its summit. The last variation, and Elgar’s self-portrait, reprises a similar exuberance and gave the orchestra one final burst of life.

 

 

Julian Schwarz Debut with Louisville Orchestra

Photo credit: Steve Sherman
Cellist Julian Schwarz performs the first cello concerto by Shostakovich with Jorge Mester and the Louisville Orchestra on February 21, 2015. He stopped by Classical 90.5 to talk with Daniel Gilliam about the concerto, and also played Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro, Op. 70, with Marika Bournaki.

Sebastian Chang and a New Symphony

Sebastian was commissioned by Teddy Abrams and the Louisville Orchestra for a new symphony. Mr. Chang was in town for the performance and talked with Daniel Gilliam about the creative process surrounding his first major work.

Review: Louisville Orchestra Presents World Premiere of Chang Symphony

Sebastian-Chang

Teddy Abrams led the Louisville Orchestra on Thursday and Friday in two symphonies: one premiere and the other one of the most performed since its premiere in 1876. The new work by Sebastian Chang, and commissioned by the LO, is his first major composition, clocking in at around thirty minutes. Titled Classical Symphony, it’s modeled on those of Mozart and Haydn, but with a musical language of today (Prokofiev did the same this with his first symphony).

Chang’s symphony is charming, with moments of nostalgia hinting at Leonard Bernstein and Bernard Herrmann. Chang seems most comfortable writing lush jazz chords or memorable tunes (I’ve remembered the second movement theme since hearing it once at the first rehearsal in December). He is melodically gifted and wants to say something that is personal in every gesture. Chang is also charming, and he smiles a lot, just like his music.

An orchestra at a premiere is a tightly-wound band, which can lead to a mechanical performance. But these performances were full of care and musicality, led by Abrams who didn’t just lead the music, but understood it. Chang’s romantic score gives the bulk of the melodic material to the violins, which at times felt like too much. I kept hoping for some prominent cello lines, or individual wind and brass players showcased. The Whitney Hall audiences were genuinely thrilled, giving Chang a warm, enthusiastic welcome.

At both performances Abrams noted the history of the Louisville Orchestra as a commissioning organization, and how this premiere was continuing that tradition. Crucial in reviving this reputation is funding. The money to commission a composer fairly for their work must come from within the community (individuals, organizations and foundations), even as the orchestra seeks funders on a national level. A composer earns in a year what a high-profile soloist makes in one night. Equally, the composers who are commissioned should be well-known and lesser-known, from around the country and close to home.

Johannes Brahms carefully deliberated over his first symphony for twenty years. Was he a rookie composer and unsure of himself? No, he had written a monumental Requiem, a piano concerto, two lengthy works for orchestra and dozens of chamber works. You could say Brahms developed a complex thanks to Beethoven’s legacy — he, Johannes, was the chosen successor. As a result, we get a symphony that wrestles with demons, finds beauty and playfulness around us, and finally stands on higher ground, like a preacher to the flock, eyes widened and fists shaking.

The orchestra plunged into this complex, emotional narrative, fully invested in every bit of the drama. More tender moments in the music were led by the prinicipal winds and brass. Concertmaster Michael Davis soared at the end of the second movement. Oboist Jennifer Potochnic was sublime, and her richly delivered solos lingered long after their ending. During the symphony’s driving moments, Abrams pushed the orchestra to the edge, almost saying “Let’s try to get even closer!” He was as much a leader as a cheerleader, giving validation to an ensemble that knew exactly what to do. The final movement, an operatic apotheosis, was a statement in and of itself triumphing for Brahms and the Louisville Orchestra.

Louisville Orchestra Announces Ambitious and Unique 2015-2016 Season; New Logo

Teddy Abrams

The second season of Teddy Abrams’ music directorship with the Louisville Orchestra was announced tonight at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts. Where last season was programmed, roughly, half by Abrams and half by Music Director Emeritus Jorge Mester, 2015-2016 is mostly Abrams, with two concerts led by Mester.

There is nothing restrained or timid next season — this is not an orchestra playing it safe. In fact, one could argue that this season is full of risks, artistically and financially. Producing works that require a large orchestra, and most on next season do, can add up. But this doesn’t feel like opulence, rather what we see here is an orchestra trying to earn back a reputation for being adventurous and innovative.

FrontCenter-2011-Jubilant-Sykes

Jubilant Sykes

What has typically been a glitz and glamour, concerto-focused Fanfara, complete with high-price soloist, is now called “Opening Night” and looks to be the most ambitious season opener ever by the Louisville Orchestra, and possibly among any American orchestra of similar budget or market size. If you thought “Carmina Burana” was extravagant, Abrams will unleash Leonard Bernstein’s eclectic “Mass” to open the season on September 26th at 8pm. Jubilant Sykes will sing the Celebrant, a role that garnered him a GRAMMY nomination in 2009. Bernstein’s musical theater work calls for two orchestras (one in the pit and one on stage), two soloists, two choirs, a rock band, and “street musicians,” which includes 45 singers and percussion. Composed for the opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Mass juxtaposes traditional Latin Mass texts with new lyrics by with Bernstein himself, Stephen Schwartz (“Godspell,” “Wicked”) and Paul Simon.

Now the tone is set for one of the most unique seasons this city has ever seen, replete with premieres and collaborations. Abrams, the composer, has scheduled himself for two new works: a fanfare in March and a work for “Community Collaborators.” In late January the orchestra will feature a commission from students at Abrams’ alma mater, the Curtis Institute of Music. A young American composer named Chase Morrin will write and perform a new piano concerto as part of a “Festival of American Music.”

Cast in two parts in March and April, the festival includes Mason Bates’ “Mothership,” for orchestra and electronica (a laptop), premiered in 2011 by the YouTube Symphony and viewed live by two million people on YouTube. Bates is paired with his fellow Californian John Adams’ “Harmonielehre” (German for “study of harmony”), a 40-minute work for large orchestra. Abrams will be the soloist in Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, and the latter’s post-war Symphony No. 3 concludes the festival.

Another collaboration takes the orchestra and Louisville Ballet relationship beyond The Nutcracker for two works in March: a choreographed Philip Glass Violin Concerto and Stravinsky’s dark burlesque “Petrouchka.”

ßãÛ

Bela Fleck

Among this season’s soloists are pianist William Wolfram playing Rachmaninoff’s second concerto with Jorge Mester, violinist Augustin Hadelich tackling the monumental violin concerto of Brahms and Bela Fleck closing the season with his banjo concerto The Imposter, a work commissioned by the Nashville Symphony.

Bob Bernhardt’s Pops Series brings a few notable soloists, too, opening with Family Guy creator and crooner Seth MacFarlane singing American Songbook standards. MacFarlane released an album in 2011 of songs from the 40s and 50s, and viewers of Family Guy will know him as the voice of Stewie. Randy Jackson (of the band Zebra, not American Idol) will perform as Robert Plant with Brent Havens conducting, Ann Hampton Callaway will sing the Streisand Songbook, and Pink Martini, a group that includes vocalist Storm Large, joins the Louisville Orchestra on March 19th.

Returning for more to-be-announced concerts are the Family Concert Series, Music Without Borders, WOW! Series events, Magic of Music and Holiday concerts. The orchestra also unveiled new logos at Friday’s post-concert announcement.

LO_Rectangle2_ColorTests3